James Harrison Wilson

James Harrison Wilson, perhaps the most distinguished of the "boy generals" of the Civil War, was born on September 2, 1837, on his father's farm near Shawneetown, Illinois. (The elder Wilson was a native of Virginia and a relative of the James River Harrisons.) After a year at McKendree College in St. Clair County, young Wilson matriculated at West Point in 1855, then a five-year course, and was graduated in 1860 ranking sixth in the class. Three of its members, Wilson, Wesley Merritt, and Stephen D. Ramseur, would become major generals within the next five years and a fourth, James M. Warner, brigadier general. Until the outbreak of the Civil War, Wilson served as assistant topographical engineer of the Department of Oregon at Fort Vancouver. During the winter of 1861-62 he was chief topographical engineer of the Port Royal expedition and of the Department of the South; in the latter capacity he took part in the reduction of Fort Pulaski at the mouth of the Savannah River. He acted as aide-de-camp to General George B. McClellan during the Maryland campaign in the fall of 1862 and was present at South Mountain and Sharpsburg. Soon after, Wilson joined U. S. Grant's headquarters in the West with rank of staff lieutenant colonel, but with primarily engineering duties. In the Vicksburg campaign he was inspector general of the Army of Tennessee and as such took part in all the battles before and after the siege and capitulation of the city. On October 30, 1863, he was made brigadier general of volunteers—the only officer ever promoted to troop command from Grant's regular staff. Wilson continued on staff duty during the battle of Chattanooga; was chief engineer of the force, under W. T. Sherman, which was sent to relieve Knoxville; and on February 17, 1864, was assigned as chief of the cavalry bureau in Washington. In this position he displayed his outstanding talent for organization and administration which, coupled with the tactical sense he was later to demonstrate, made him one of the war's foremost figures. At the outset of the Richmond campaign, Grant had him assigned to command a division of Philip Sheridan's cavalry, which he led with boldness and skill in the numerous fights of that summer en route to Petersburg and in the Shenandoah Valley. Just before the battle of Cedar Creek in October, he was detached and ordered west again as chief of cavalry of Sherman's Military Division of the Mississippi, a post which placed him virtually on a par with Sheridan in the East. He prepared Judson Kilpatrick's men for the campaign from Atlanta to Savannah and then recruited, equipped, drilled, and organized the rest ot the cavalry in the western theater into a corps of seventeen thousand troops, which he commanded during the virtual destruction of John B. Hood's Army of Tennessee at Franklin and Nashville in November and December, 1864. The following spring Wilson overwhelmed Nathan B. Forrest at Selma, Alabama, dispersing the latter's forces, and then Wilson turned east, sweeping through the remnant of the Confederacy and whirling away its defenders in the greatest independent cavalry movement of the Civil War. He reached Macon, Georgia, on April 20, 1865, where hostilities virtually terminated. He was made a major general of volunteers on June 21 to rank from May 6 and was also brevetted major general in the Regular Army. With the army's reorganization of 1866 he became lieutenant colonel of the newly created 35th Infantry, but his duty assignments continued to be in the Corps of Engineers. He was honorably discharged at his own request in 1870 in order to engage in the construction and management of various railroad enterprises, and in 1883 he established a residence in Wilmington. During the next fifteen years he devoted his time to business, travel, and public affairs, meantime writing prolifically on a number of subjects. When the war with Spain broke out in 1898, Wilson immediately volunteered and served as a major general of volunteers in Puerto Rico and Cuba. He also took part in the Boxer Rebellion in China and in 1901 was placed on the retired list of the army as a brigadier general by special act of Congress. The following year he represented President Theodore Roosevelt at the coronation of Edward VII. General Wilson lived through the administrations of four more presidents; he died in Wilmington on February 23, 1925, and was buried in Old Swedes Churchyard. Only Generals Nelson A. Miles, John R. Brooke, and Adelbert Ames survived him of the 583 who held full-rank commissions during the Civil War.

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Reference: Generals in Blue. Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge.